Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is 35 years old today

On December 19th 1971, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick unleashed what – I believe so anyway – is the greatest movie he ever made. So let's hoist our glasses and raise a toast to the 35th anniversary of A Clockwork Orange!

This is definitely my most favorite movie that Kubrick made: even more so than 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove (although I love those also quite a bit). But none of his other works have had the influence on my life as A Clockwork Orange has.

So how did I wind up coming across it? I'd heard of A Clockwork Orange for years and thought it an oddball title but didn't have any inclination toward watching it, until one day in English class during my high school senior year a classmate talked about seeing it the previous weekend. "That's the most torn-up movie ever made," Joel told us. That was all it took: not long after I went into Action Video and rented it.

To a seventeen-year old mind that had wound up staying fairly pure so far as cinema brutality went, A Clockwork Orange was like being splashed in the face with a bucket of warm blood. To say that I was "shocked" would be a vast understatement.

Since then I've probably watched A Clockwork Orange two or three dozen times over the years. Sometimes alone and sometimes, it's been watching it with other people just to see their reaction to it and what they think it's about. My first year at Elon, I kept telling my friends Gary and "Weird" Ed that they should check this movie out. So one Thursday night they came over to the apartment for pizza and I put A Clockwork Orange in the VCR. It had a strange effect on Gary: the entire time we drove back to campus he kept repeating the word "kill" over and over again. After watching it with another friend, he found himself addicted to speaking "Nadsat" (the weird mixture of Russian and English that Alex and his gang uses when they talk). I showed it to Lisa a few months after we'd started dating... which probably wasn't the smartest thing in the world considering I was trying to keep this girl, not scare her off. She didn't think I was a pervert for liking this movie, but I don't think she's ever wanted to see it again either. But that's understandable: Even after all this time, A Clockwork Orange still barrages my own senses every time I see it.

I don't think that "torn-up" is really the right adjective to describe A Clockwork Orange anymore though. "Torn-up" would be a movie that's bizarrely violent for violence's sake, and that's not A Clockwork Orange at all. Neither is it a very complex tale: it's actually a pretty simple story. Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is the young leader of a gang of remorseless hoodlums in an England sometime in the future (we are never told when exactly this story takes place). Life for Alex and his gang means drinking milk laced with drugs before heading out into the night for "a bit of the old ultra-violence". This usually means stealing cars, kicking the crap out of defenseless old men and forcing a husband to watch as his wife is gang-raped. One night one of Alex's pranks on innocent people results in the death of a woman and he's left wounded at the scene after being betrayed by his gang members. He's arrested, put on trial and sentenced to prison. He spends a few years behind bars and then comes to the attention of the government. Alex, it seems, is the perfect subject on whom to test "the Ludovico technique": a psychological procedure that renders the person incapable of wanting to commit acts of violence. I won't say anymore than that, to keep the story from being "spoiled" for those who haven't seen it yet. But in spite of the unbridled violence that permeates A Clockwork Orange, I've never found that to be the focus of the film. The story of Alex, and what he goes through and what is done to him, vastly outweighs and even justifies the visual trauma that is inflicted upon the viewer of this movie. And from the very beginning, every time I finish watching A Clockwork Orange it's not the violence that occupies my mind... but a sense of sympathy for Alex and what he's gone through.

What A Clockwork Orange has meant to me has changed considerably over the years. When I first saw it, I saw it simply as a movie about youth out of control, and then youth wasted without purpose. Today my understanding of it is much more profound.

The most central theme of A Clockwork Orange is moral choice: Can a person be made to be good, or is being good something that he or she must choose on their own? In that regard, A Clockwork Orange stands as an indictment against those who believe that it is the role of the State to create morality. A conscience is something that a person must want to have. It cannot be initiated or even nurtured by government if it's already there, because that would either corrupt a man at best or completely destroy him at worst. As we see in A Clockwork Orange, the government's meddling in things best left to God almost results in Alex being killed.

In recent years I've come to see a theme in A Clockwork Orange about how in spite of the "morality" it tries to enforce, that government – no matter who is running it – really doesn't care about the life of the individual. To the state, individuals are mere tools to be used at whim to maintain the state's hold on power. The government in A Clockwork Orange does not really care about what happens to Alex in the long run: they want results now that will impress the voters enough to keep their party in office. Which it doesn't matter if that party is "liberal" or "conservative": to either, Alex would be an expendable asset. I think this kind of commentary about the dehumanizing of the individual for sake of the political party was way ahead of its time in 1971... and something we would do wise to consider today.

As a Christian, I have also come to see A Clockwork Orange as being about what the world is like without the virtues of grace and forgiveness. Alex finds that out after he's released from prison and discovers that though the state may have forgiven him on paper, his victims did not. Alex's sins come back to haunt him and when they catch up with him, they are unrelentingly cruel and vicious... just as Alex had been before being sent to prison. I can't help but think to myself "This is how the world really is without the willingness to return love for hate". If you want to get a glimpse of what a world devoid of God is really like, go watch A Clockwork Orange. And I don't think that I'm seeing too much in this story so far as Christian metaphor goes either considering that Anthony Burgess, the author of the original novel, was a devout Christian himself.

Well, I could go on, but to do a really full analysis of A Clockwork Orange would take probably another fifteen pages, so I'm just going to leave it at this. So in honor of this, the 35th birthday of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, I suggest that a celebration is in order: Either watching the DVD of the movie or if there's no time for that, at least listening to a bit of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

However it is that one chooses to commemorate it: happy anniversary A Clockwork Orange!


Anonymous said...


Two Missing Climbers Still Sought; Body of Third Identified

Jenna St.Hilaire said...

Ah yes... the movie you told me I should watch. I wonder if I could overcome my shudderings at brutality long enough to see it, because I fully appreciate the point of the story, which you made in the review.

Maybe sometime when I'm not alone... and it's sunny outside... and I'm not intending to sleep for a week... I'll see it :-)